Our bodies need healthy levels of cholesterol to function. Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by the liver and distributed throughout the body. It allows our bodies to make vitamin D and hormones, and makes up bile acids. We also get less than 25 percent of our body’s cholesterol from the foods we eat, especially animal fats.
High cholesterol means you have a lot more cholesterol in your blood than you need. Most people who have high cholesterol don’t have any obvious symptoms. A simple blood test can tell you if you have high cholesterol. If you do have high cholesterol, dietary changes, exercise, and targeted medications can help lower it and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
Cholesterol moves through your bloodstream via lipoproteins. There are two kinds of lipoproteins, and we need them both. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) transport cholesterol around to where it’s needed. If there’s too much cholesterol, it may be deposited into the arteries. LDL is commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol.” High-density lipoproteins (HDL) take the extra cholesterol from your tissues and cells and return it to your liver for repurposing. That’s why HDL is called “good cholesterol.”
The job of the arteries is to move blood from your heart to other parts of your body. Too much LDL and not enough HDL makes it more likely that your arteries will develop plaque, a hardened mixture of cholesterol, fat, and other elements.
As coronary arteries narrow, it’s harder for blood to make it through to your heart. If an area of plaque breaks open, it can result in a blood clot, which can block blood flow altogether. This puts you at great risk of having a heart attack. Symptoms of reduced blood supply to the heart include chest discomfort, pressure, and pain (angina). You may also have pain in your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, or back. Angina can be mistaken for indigestion.
If blood flow to one section of heart muscle is blocked, the result is a heart attack. That means the heart muscle is dying. Blood flow has to be restored fast, or there’s a risk of permanent heart damage or death.
When plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to your brain, your brain is deprived of oxygen. Brain cells quickly become damaged and start to die (stroke). Symptoms include sudden weakness and numbness. Depending on the area of the brain involved, you may have trouble speaking, seeing, or moving your limbs. A stroke can cause brain damage, disability, or death.
Plaque can also build up and interfere with blood flow to your arms and legs (peripheral arterial disease). If the blood supply to your limbs is blocked, you may feel numbness or pain. There’s an increased risk of infection in those limbs. Lack of blood can cause tissue death (gangrene).
High cholesterol can create a bile imbalance, leading to gallstones. According to the National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse, more than 80 percent of gallstones are cholesterol stones.
A buildup of plaque in your arteries can also block blood flow to your kidneys and stomach. Intestinal ischemic syndrome is when there’s a blockage in arteries leading to the intestines or bowel. Symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and bloody stools.